From Čapek to Lem: AI in Eastern European Science Fiction
“Each factory will be making Robots of a different color, a different nationality, a different tongue; […] they’ll no longer be able to conspire with one another…” – Karel Čapek, R.U.R., 1920.
“How do you expect to communicate with the ocean, when you can’t even understand one another?” ― Stanisław Lem, Solaris, 1961
The second online event in a series of workshops on AI Narratives in Central and Eastern Europe will take place on 15 January 2021 and focus on the representations of intelligent machines in Eastern European SF, with a particular focus on the works of Karel Čapek and Stanisław Lem.
Karel Čapek was a Czech playwright who coined the word “robot” – used for the first time in the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which premiered on 25 January 1921, exactly a century ago. Stanisław Lem was a Polish science fiction writer and philosopher, and the author of Solaris (1961) and The Futurological Congress (1971). Lem was born in 1921 and, to mark the anniversary, 2021 has been declared ‘the year of Lem’ in Poland. Our workshop is a celebration of these two centenaries.
To participate in the online workshop, please scroll to the bottom of this page. A detailed program is available below.
Start: 11AM (Central European Time), 15 January 2021
DUE TO COVID-19, THIS EVENT WILL BE VIRTUAL
Start: 11:00 AM (CET)
11:00 – 11:10 – Opening remarks: Dr Kanta Dihal (CFI, University of Cambridge)
11:10 – 12:10 – Panel 1. Polish AI Narratives and Stanisław Lem. Chair: Dr Vít Střítecký.
– Dr Jerzy Stachowicz (University of Warsaw): “The First Robotic Moment: Artificial Humans in Polish SF literature before World War II”
– Dr Bogna Konior (NYU Shanghai): “Automatic Gnosis: On Lem’s Summa Technologiae.”
– Michał Sobczyk (The Lem Institute): “How Lem’s literary legacy is shaping the perception of technological progress in Poland?”
12:10 – 12:30 – Break
12:30 – 1:30 Panel 2. Karel Čapek: a hundred years of robots. Chair: Dr Vít Střítecký.
– Dr Klára Kudlová (Czech Academy of Sciences): “Features of AI and Humanness: Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.”
– Dr Libuše Heczková (Charles University): “Science, Technology and Karel Čapek’s Skepticism.”
– Dr Rudolf Rosa, Patrícia Schmidtová and Klára Vosecká (THEaiTRE project): “Inverting R.U.R. with Artificial Intelligence: THEaiTRobot is Generating a Theatre Play Script to Mark 100 Years of Čapek’s Work.”
Finish: 1:30 PM (CET)
Abstracts and Speaker Bios
Panel 1 – Polish AI Narratives and Stanisław Lem
The First Robotic Moment: Artificial Humans in Polish SF literature before World War II
‘We are tempted by the prospect of artificial intelligences as our companions. That taking care of us will be their jobs. That we will take comfort in their company and conversation. This is where we are, and this is where we are pointing’ – wrote Sherry Turkle, introducing the concept of the robotic moment. This significant civilizational change is, in her opinion, around the corner. Many of us also believe we are in a robotic moment now. We are currently discussing how robots and artificial intelligence will change the world. We often treat them as entities that appeared on Earth out of the blue – instantly in the form of chatbots and Boston Dynamics machines. But robots gained their popularity before 1939. What the technology looks like today, how it is used, what fears or hopes it arouses – may be linked to what shapes it took in the literature of that time. To become a part of what is called – after R. Barbrook – the ‘imagined future,’ intelligent robots had to enter popular culture as characters The time when the vision of robots as artificial humans and the word ‘robot’ – coined by Karel Čapek – became popular is what we call the first robotic moment. This talk focuses on a few examples of robots in Polish science-fiction literature before 1939 and emphasizes how the political and cultural situation influenced the idea of what a robot should be.
Automatic Gnosis: On Lem’s Summa Technologiae
Titled after Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, Lem’s quintessential theoretical work, Summa Technologiae (1964), reveals his preoccupation with long-term techno-biological evolution of humanity. Focusing on artificial life and ‘the breeding of information’ as examples of existential, rather than utilitarian, technologies, this talk explores Lem’s unique reading of cybernetics, and reflects on its relationship to the dominant militaristic model of cybernetics during the Cold War. Lem’s study of cybernetic evolution can be read as a theology of technology, where the inhuman determinant beyond history is not divinity or ideology, but reason, artifice, and contingency. Simultaneously, the talk reflects on the place of the Summa within Lem’s oeuvre, and in the context of the 1960s Communist bloc and communism’s own tautological ideas of political evolution of civilizations. By focusing on Poland’s unique historical position, defined by occupations rather than imperial ascent, as is usual for regions that produce science-fiction, it speculates on the relevance of Lem’s work on artificial life for debates around artificial intelligence today.
How Lem’s literary legacy is shaping the perception of technological progress in Poland?
This presentation will focus on Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction works and how they have impacted public debate and awareness on the emerging technologies. It will also try to examine if it is still possible to use Lem’s ideas and literary concepts to spark interest in the new technologies in the wider Polish public. Poland is increasingly seen as the software house of Europe, based on the large pool of ICT and STEM talents and rising tech companies, but still Polish national identity is deeply rooted in history and often this is a barrier to release the full creative potential of this nation. Using selected Lem’s works we shall try to imagine how science fiction can foster more forwarding thinking in the general public.
Panel 2 – Karel Čapek: a hundred years of robot
Features of AI and Humanness: Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.
In the dramatic narrative of R.U.R. (1921), the author presents a range of characters situated on the scale between human/naturally intelligent – non-human/machine intelligent – non-human/artificially intelligent. The dramatic narrative as a whole voices a substantial warning: the motifs of scientists and businessmen engaged in the creation of artificial workers were not moral and the project was stained by the original intentions. Also, politicians and well-meaning but short-sighted humanists add to the twist the project of Rossum’s Universal Robots gets, and the result brings the eradication of humankind and general catastrophe. Just like other avant-garde writers, Čapek combines the fascination with the latest (or even future) scientific development and the perspective of Christian values. In his drama, Bible and science meet in order to delimit the features of humanness. Despite the general warning against artificial intelligence, the narrative sets also strong hope in it. This, however, is derived from the capacity of humankind to create artificial intelligence which is led by the deepest human qualities (such as the capacity to face hardships, to procreate, the willingness for self-sacrifice).
Science, Technology and Karel Čapek’s Skepticism
“So far, every technical discovery is a piece of success and a piece of hell. It would be a desperate prospect for the future if I did not firmly believe that there are other, completely different sources of salvation for the human,” wrote Karel Čapek in his article ‘The Temple of Labour’ in 1920. My talk focuses on the examples of Karel and Josef Čapeks’ own reflections of the drama R.U.R. and the heated debates that accompanied its success in Europe and North America (by 1923, it had been translated into thirty languages). I will discuss two major questions raised by the drama R.U.R: the conflict between knowledge and technology as well as between destruction and salvation, and how humankind uses its own image to construct the future despite its real being/needs. “There is nothing more alien to man than his own image” said Alquist in R.U.R.
Inverting R.U.R. with Artificial Intelligence: THEaiTRobot is Generating a Theatre Play Script to Mark 100 Years of Čapek’s Work
Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. was the first theatrical play written by a human about robots (and humans). It premiered on 25 January 1921. A hundred years later, with all the current advances in natural language processing and artificial neural networks, we have turned the idea around in our THEaiTRE project. On 25 January 2021, we will premiere “AI: When a robot writes a play” (“AI: Když robot píše hru”), a theatre play about humans (and robots) written by our artificial intelligence called THEaiTRobot. It is made possible by computational linguists joining forces with theatre experts for this unique research project. What is this project about and how has it been developed? What challenges have we faced? What does the AI-generated script look like? …and do we actually want AI to create art?